Fernandito Ferrer was deep into “Al Nivel De Mar” when the sun began to sink. Nelson Pinos sat back into his chair. His son Brandon blew bubbles and tried to pop them between his hands. On the steps by a makeshift stage, a few attendees began to sway with the lyrics.
Al nivel del mar se ve el cielo caer,/las nubes pasar, los barcos llegando, al nivel del mar se ve la ciudad comenzando/Al nivel del mar se ve la ola venir, la marea subir y el pescador esperando,/al nivel del mar se oye la tierra suspirando
Members of Pinos' family, with Marco and Fanny Reyes in the background. Smiling to the right is young immigrant rights activist Hazel Mencos.
Members of both groups said they did not know how much had been raised by the end of the night, as a donation jar made the rounds, collecting dollar bills. They added that donations are ongoing online.
A Puerto Rican musician known for his agile loops, heart-pounding rhythms and mastery of Nueva Trova and folk, Ferrer said he wanted to stop in New Haven to show solidarity for Pinos, who will enter his seventh month seeking sanctuary from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on July 17. The city wasn’t originally on his list of touring locations, but he said he is a longtime friend of ULA’s, and wanted to see what he could offer.
“We are musicians. I can only play my guitar,” he said. “So the people who are in the communities that can do the work that needs to be done, you deserve everything in the world.”
Setting up in the church’s gated-in portico, Ferrer got the crowd going with soulful, propulsive ballads and covers including John Lennon’s “Imagine” (“Imagina,” as he sang it in Spanish) and later, parts of Tracy Chapman’s “Revolution.”
As a few attendees scurried to the few remaining seats, he dove into an emotional rendition of “No Puedo Dejarme Salir,” his contribution to a tribute album to Puerto Rican freedom fighter Oscar López Rivera. He dedicated it to Pinos, watching him intently from the third row of chairs.
“That’s the song I wrote for it [the CD], but in a way, it’s also about the struggle—doing your thing and going the long distance, even if it means having to pay the highest price,” he said, looking at Pinos and then to the rest of the crowd. “Thank you to you guys who are doing this. It’s an honor to be here.”
The audience comprised members of the activist community, family of Nelson, and a few attendees who had heard about it at the last minute on social media.
A light breeze wound through the space, each chair now full. Brandon, now seated in his mom’s lap, yawned, and rubbed his eyes. In the doorway of the church, Marco Reyes and his wife Fanny settled in two chairs, holding hands. Ferrer transitioned from a slow croon of a song into “Alla al Otro Lado,” rhythmic guitar dipping in and out as he added claves, bells, and triangle on loop.
In the background, the looping claves were water dripping in a cave, a shallow little echo each time they sounded. His hands sped up on the guitar, sometimes using their boniest parts for just the right sound. Something quintessentially Tracy Chapman came up through his fingertips, making its way to his voice box.
Don’t you know, I’m talkin about a revolution Sounds like a whisper
The crowd began to clap as Ferrer dug deeper into his set, unleashing a lyrical bag of tricks. He showed off fast finger work, strings turning to steel and then going slack in his hands. As other attendees leaned in to listen. Brandon roused himself and wandered into the church, emerging with a plush Pikachu toy.
He ran over to Morales Sanchez, and began to play. Others swayed and clapped to the music, communing with the lyrics as if it were still time for church, and the portico a great, mellifluous sanctuary. Ferrer preached at the front, raising his eyes to the white columns above.
Al nivel del mar llegan los sueños,/ vienen nadando, al nivel del mar me paso las horas pensando/Al nivel del mar fuimos con todo menos las penas,/al nivel del mar fuimos niños en la arena
ULA member Vanessa Suarez said she found the concert bittersweet—a necessary chance for activists to recharge, but also a reminder that Pinos cannot go home without risking his life, and must live out his day-to-day enclosed by the church, which is enclosed by a gate and locking doors.
“Moments like this—we get to breathe a little bit,” she said. “It’s essential to our movement—these kind of last-minute breaks. It keeps us moving forward.”
So too for Pinos, surrounded by supporters throughout the night. At the end of the concert, he and his wife stood in the doorway of the church, chatting with Suarez and ULA member Jesus Morales-Sanchez. He said he had seen Ferrer once before, at the People’s Center, just before seeking sanctuary last year.
“It’s wonderful to see the support of people, the support of musicians,” he said, haloed in light in the doorway. It would be only minutes until he had to turn, and head back downstairs.
To see more videos from the concert, click here. To view a photo gallery from the concert, click on the images below.